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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Bears get a second chance at Phnom Tamao Zoo

Bears get a second chance at Phnom Tamao Zoo

With countless animals in Cambodia falling victim to illegal wildlife

trade, one organisation offers a safe and healthy environment for

rescued bears.

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Photo Supplied

Harry is one of several vulnerable Sun Bears that fall prey each year to poachers or wealthy families looking to acquire an exotic pet.

THE timid, brown Sun Bear peered suspiciously out of his cage in the quarantine area of the Phnom Tamao Zoo, nervously growling if anybody came near him. He was extremely sick when he arrived at the zoo and had to have daily injections of antibiotics. Hence, his aversion to humans. His name is Harry, and he was recently rescued from the fourth floor of a wealthy Phnom Penh family home.

Harry was purchased from a dealer in Ratanakkiri by his previous owners when he was three weeks old and taken to Phnom Penh as a family pet. Not knowing how to properly care for a wild bear, the family fed him a diet of tap water mixed with sweetened condensed milk and kept him in a small cage, barely big enough for a dog. By the time he was rescued a year later, he was weak, emaciated and had lost large patches of fur that had rubbed off when he paced against the metal bars of the cage.

"I had to carry him in my arms down four flights of stairs, as the transport cage could not fit up the narrow passageways," said head bear keeper at the zoo, Chuon Vuthy.

The keeper works for an organisation called Free the Bears Fund Inc, which runs a centre at the Phnom Tamao Zoological Gardens and Wildlife Rescue Centre, 40 kilometres south of Phnom Penh. The Australian NGO was created in 1995 in response to the terrible treatment of illegally poached bears, many of which are cruelly imprisoned and sold for their body parts and bile, often used in Chinese medicines.

Free the Bears operates centres in five countries across Asia. They work together with local authorities to combat the illegal wildlife trade, and provide care and rehabilitation to hundreds of bears.

The Cambodian operation

The centre in Cambodia has been open since 1997.

"We get some of the bears from the illegal wildlife trade and some have been donated by wealthy people," Chuon Vuthy explained.

"Sometimes, we go to people's homes where bears are being kept as pets, and we explain to them that it's illegal to keep wild animals as pets or property. We tell them that they can donate the bears to the zoo, where we can care for them properly. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't."

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Photo Supplied

One of the caregivers at the center with Nutkins .

In October, the centre took on three new bear cubs, two of which had been donated to the zoo, and one of which had been taken from a poacher in Pursat province.

Holly, a small but friendly Sun Bear, had caught her leg in a poacher's snare and lost her hind paw as a result. She is also missing three of her front claws, which the poacher offered no explanation for. At the centre, she is receiving the medical care she needs, as well as a safe and healthy environment in which to grow.

A large family

Free the Bears currently houses 102 bears at the Phnom Tamao Zoo in 16 outdoor enclosures with a wealth of trees and wooden walkway.

The bear species are made up of Asiatic Black Bears and Sun Bears, both of which are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Bears at the zoo are closely monitored to ensure that they are healthy and happy, and there is an onsite veterinarian for any medical problems that may arise.

"As of now, none of the bears are released back into the wild, as much of their natural habitat has been lost, and they have become too accustomed to people, but I'm hoping that will change in the future," said Chuon Vuthy.

Phnom Tamao Zoo and the Free the Bears Fund Inc are currently building two new wooded enclosures where the bears can forage and play, and a new indoor holding pen for up to 20 bears. This new space will house the bears at the zoo, as well as future arrivals.

Volunteer opportunities

Volunteers are welcome at the centre. At present, they can sign on for one to six weeks to help feed and clean the bears. Volunteer packages include accommodation at a house near the sanctuary, transportation to the centre as well as breakfast and dinner. Interested parties have the opportunity to learn from veteran bear keeper of 12 years, Chuon Vuthy, and his highly trained and knowledgeable colleagues.

We get some of the bears from the illegal wildlife trade and some have been  donated by wealthy people.

"The first day the volunteers are here, we teach them the rules - what they can and can't do so nobody gets hurt," said Chuon Vuthy. "Then, we teach them how to clean the cages, feed the bears and take general observations. Volunteers learn a lot, and they seem to really enjoy the time they spend here."

Matt Hunt, the Southeast Asia program manager and CEO, said: "It's great for people to come in and meet the bears, meet their personalities and learn about the program. For example, I can go tell people in Australia what we're doing here in about 30 minutes, but it doesn't really give them a clear idea about the centre or the bears themselves."

Each week the centre accepts no more than six volunteers, ensuring that the number of visitor caregivers never exceeds the number of onsite bear keepers.

Free the Bears Fund Inc is also in the process of opening a new centre for bears three hours away from Phnom Tamao on the South coast of Vietnam, where they plan to create small eco-lodges where volunteers can stay onsite and take part in caring for and learning about rescued bears in the region. The first bears will move there this month, and the centre should be open to volunteers in 2010. 

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